Magic Mushrooms. LSD. Ketamine. The Drugs That Power Silicon Valley.
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Magic Mushrooms. LSD. Ketamine. The Drugs That Power Silicon Valley.

Entrepreneurs including Elon Musk and Sergey Brin are part of a drug movement that proponents hope will expand minds, enhance lives and produce business breakthroughs

By KIRSTEN GRIND and Katherine Bindley
Wed, Jun 28, 2023 8:33amGrey Clock 9 min

Elon Musk takes ketamine. Sergey Brin sometimes enjoys magic mushrooms. Executives at venture-capital firm Founders Fund, known for its investments in SpaceX and Facebook, have thrown parties that include psychedelics.

Routine drug use has moved from an after-hours activity squarely into corporate culture, leaving boards and business leaders to wrestle with their responsibilities for a workforce that frequently uses. At the vanguard are tech executives and employees who see psychedelics and similar substances, among them psilocybin, ketamine and LSD, as gateways to business breakthroughs.

“There are millions of people microdosing psychedelics right now,” said Karl Goldfield, a former sales and marketing consultant in San Francisco who informally counsels friends and colleagues across the tech world on calibrating the right small dose for maximum mindfulness. It is “the fastest path to opening your mind up and clearly seeing for yourself what’s going on,” said Goldfield.

Goldfield doesn’t have a medical degree and said he learned to dose through experience. He said the number of questions he gets about how to microdose has grown dramatically in recent months.

The account of Musk’s drug use comes from people who witnessed him use ketamine and others with direct knowledge of his use. Details about Brin’s drug use and the Founders Fund parties come from people familiar with them.

Musk, his attorney and a top adviser didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Brin, the co-founder of Google, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In a tweet following online publication of this article, Musk said he believed ketamine is a better way to deal with depression compared with more widely prescribed antidepressants that are “zombifying” people.

The movement isn’t a medical experiment or a related investment opportunity, but a practice that has become for many a routine part of doing business. It comes with risks of dependence and abuse. Most of the drugs are illegal. Before he was killed in April in San Francisco, Bob Lee, the founder of CashApp, was part of an underground party scene known as “the Lifestyle,” where the use of psychedelics was common. Lee had ingested drugs including ketamine before his death, an autopsy showed.

Silicon Valley has long had a tolerance toward drug use—many companies don’t test employees regularly—but the phenomenon is worrying some companies and their boards, who fear they could be held liable for illegal activity, according to consultants and others close to the companies.

Users rely on drug dealers for ecstasy and most other psychedelics, or in elite cases, they employ chemists. One prolific drug dealer in San Francisco who serves a slice of the tech world is known as “Costco” because users can buy bulk at a discount, according to people familiar with the business. “Cuddle puddles,” which feature groups of people embracing and showing platonic affection, have become standard fare.

Some start dabbling with psychedelics in search of mental clarity or to address health issues and end up using the drugs more frequently at Silicon Valley parties or raves, where they have taken a role similar to alcohol at a cocktail party.

Invitations to psychedelic parties are often sent through the encrypted messaging app Signal, rather than over email or text, so they can’t be shared easily. At some high-end private parties, users are asked to sign nondisclosure agreements and sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to attend, according to people who have attended or received invitations.

Spencer Shulem, CEO of the startup, said he uses LSD about every three months because it increases focus and helps him think more creatively. While working alone after hours, he will sometimes take a low-enough dose where he said no one would know he was on LSD. Other times, he’ll take a larger dose alone and connect with nature on a hike.

Shulem, who lives in New York City, said the high expectations of venture-capital firms and investors in general can lead founders to turn to psychedelics to provide an edge. “They don’t want a normal person, a normal company,” he said. “They want something extraordinary. You’re not born extraordinary.”

He said he is cautious about sharing his LSD experiences at work unless someone asks. “I am not having a preaching seminar every Friday about the joys of drugs,” he said.

Fueling the informal use of psychedelics across the tech world is the formal, clinical work performed by doctors and researchers seeking new solutions for mental-health problems. Ketamine, which doctors have long used as an anaesthetic, is sometimes prescribed to treat depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, often as pills or through infusions at clinics.

Investors are pouring funds into companies working to develop treatments with psychedelics. Rick Doblin, the founder of the research and advocacy nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, saw about 12,000 attendees at his psychedelics science conference in Denver last week, a record, compared with about 3,000 six years ago.

Using psychedelics was the subject of a bestselling book by Michael Pollan in 2018 called “How to Change Your Mind.” A Netflix docuseries based on the book followed in 2022.

The value of the psychedelic drug market, which includes companies engaging in research and trials to legalise the use, is expected to reach $11.8 billion by 2029, up from $4.9 billion in 2022, according to research firm BrandEssence. Founders Fund has an ownership stake in Compass Pathways, a company researching commercial psilocybin development, and its co-founder Peter Thiel is personally invested in Atai Life Sciences, which is developing psychedelics for mental health.

A spokeswoman for Founders Fund said, “Research shows that psychedelics can provide significant mental health benefits, and we support public and private sector efforts to make these drugs safely and legally available.”

While some tech players say taking the drugs brings a medical benefit, most are dosing themselves, and not in a clinical setting. Tech innovators such as Apple’s Steve Jobs have long talked about using LSD. Today, the use of psychedelics has become widespread.

“A few years ago, talking about psychedelics in Silicon Valley was a big no-no,” said Edward Sullivan, the chief executive of Velocity Coaching, a business that coaches startup founders and corporate executives. “That has really changed.”

He said about 40% of his clients have expressed an interest in psychedelics recently, up from a handful five years ago. Some executive coaches said they are now helping companies and leadership teams navigate drug use.

Some entrepreneurs microdose to derive benefits, often in hope of alleviating anxiety or sharpening focus. Others in tech said they take full doses of a drug—using the term macrodose—as they try to reach a high that will lead to a new disruptive idea. Goldfield describes this as “ego death,” an experience when a user gets to the core of their being and “lets go.”

The chief executive of the startup Iterable, Justin Zhu, said he microdosed LSD two years ago and was fired by the company’s board of directors. Zhu’s dismissal was for violations of “Iterable’s Employee Handbook, policies and values,” the company wrote in an email to staff at the time.

Zhu said he microdosed LSD once in 2019 on the recommendation of another entrepreneur, to help cope with depression as a result of being a CEO. He found meditation and fasting weren’t enough. “It did really heal a lot of the trauma for me,” he said in an interview.

Zhu filed a lawsuit against Iterable and some of its board members alleging he was terminated for voicing complaints about anti-Asian discrimination, and that the microdosing issue was a pretext. The dose affected Zhu’s vision during an investor meeting, but overall the experience brought a positive change to his work life, Zhu’s lawyers said in the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Iterable declined to comment for the company and the board. The case is proceeding to private arbitration, Zhu said.

When Musk in 2018 smoked marijuana on “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, he and employees of Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, were subjected to drug tests for months after, Musk has said, without offering further details.

The CEO has told people he microdoses ketamine for depression, and he also takes full doses of ketamine at parties, according to the people who have witnessed his drug use and others who have direct knowledge of it.

The psychedelic parties that attract chief executives such as Musk and others across the tech industry extend beyond Silicon Valley. Tech and other industry executives have attended similar parties in Miami and Mexico, where guest lists are tightly controlled and kept confidential, according to attendees.

Goldfield, the former sales consultant who helps his friends microdose, said he counsels users to take a small amount of a psychedelic—say 10 micrograms in a gummy or a pill—and wait an hour to gauge the effect. Goldfield said that LSD helped him recover from a tough childhood in Chicago of bullying and feeling suicidal.

Microdosing, he said, isn’t the same as being high. “Think of it as a smart drug,” he said. “It’s giving you the ability to be more analytical and be more aware.”

Experts in the field say people who attempt to self-diagnose can slide into abuse. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to be the one who gets that positive outcome on your own,” said Alex Penrod, an addiction specialist in Austin, Texas.

Penrod said he supports the use of psychedelics with the help of a trained therapist but worries about people who use the potential therapeutic benefits of the drugs as a justification for recreational use. “You can get very comfortable with, ‘Well it has positive values, so I’m not going to pay attention to my use,’ ” he said. “It’s kind of blinding.”

When using powerful substances without the assistance of trained professionals, “you’re going to have some people falling into self-destructive behaviour, rather than self-healing behaviour,” said Sullivan, the executive coach.

That is what happened to Tony Hsieh, the former Zappos chief executive who died in late 2020 following injuries in a house fire, the Journal has previously reported. Hsieh believed that ketamine could help him think through business challenges while working at Zappos, which is owned by Soon, he was overusing, the friends said. Under pressure from Amazon to improve his erratic behaviour, Hsieh resigned shortly before his death, the Journal reported.

Doblin, the founder of MAPS, and other researchers, said they believe there is a way to incorporate drugs into the workplace. At MAPS, which has about 35 employees, Doblin added to his employee manual a section called smokable tasks—things you can do at work when you’re high on drugs, such as brainstorming in a meeting or using Excel.

A for-profit subsidiary of MAPS, which is working to develop a therapy that works in conjunction with MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and has about 130 employees, declined to implement the policy. Doblin called that position “timid and risk-averse.”

Psybicilin mushrooms at Karl Goldfield’s home in San Francisco, Calif. on June 11.
CREDIT: Clara Mokri for The Wall Street Journal

Amy Emerson, the chief executive of MAPS Public Benefit Corp., MAPS’s for-profit arm, said in a written statement, “We support MAPS having policies that work for their teams and the work they are doing and maintain separate policies for our employees and the work we do at MAPS PBC.”

Tim Sae Koo was the founder of a digital marketing startup in San Francisco when he discovered psychedelics at the Coachella music festival in 2014.

He said they helped him realise he had started his business to make his mother proud, and that it was time to sell. “A lot of that kind of exploration in my psychedelic experience helped give me a clarity that I had started the company from a place of a wound,” he said.

For the past five years, he has hosted ayahuasca retreats in Costa Rica geared toward tech entrepreneurs and CEOs. Over 500 people have attended the ceremonies, including a handful of founders of startups worth more than $1 billion, he said.

The retreats last days where people drink a hallucinogenic brew that often induces vomiting but can also open the mind, said Sae Koo, incorporating elements of a practice used by some indigenous cultures.

Dustin Robinson, a former attorney at the law firm Holland & Knight, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he began researching psychedelics and their healing properties before trying psilocybin in the presence of his life coach. Suddenly, Robinson said, he could see a much broader career path.

He started a psychedelic-focused venture-capital fund. “It helped me step away and think, ‘Wow, I can have so much of a larger impact,’ ” he said.

In the past couple of years, the fund has invested nearly $20 million in 18 different companies involved with psychedelics. He is on track to launch a second fund. The companies are all legal, he said, because they are researching and dispensing the drugs for pharmaceutical purposes.

Robinson said he has received ketamine therapy—full-dose injections by a doctor at a private clinic. He recently attended a five-day psilocybin retreat in Jamaica organised by Beckley Retreats, where he is a lead investor. Users don eye masks in a spiritual ceremony and, under the guidance of trained facilitators, receive a high dose of the drug to “go inward,” he said.

If he still worked at Holland & Knight, “I certainly wouldn’t be posting information about my psychedelic experience,” he said.

Sylvia Benito, a board member and spokeswoman for Beckley, said there is a waiting list for most of the roughly 30 retreats each year. The retreats are popular because “we’re in a time when people are looking for ways to feel like their lives matter.”

At Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., S.O. Swanson, a former line worker, said that while Tesla had a policy against drugs, it had a high tolerance for cannabis and psychedelic use outside of the workday, and employees weren’t routinely tested.

Often Tesla workers were bussed in an hour or more from nearby cities, and it was common to ingest cannabis or psychedelics and arrive at work “California sober,” Swanson said.

Swanson took small doses of LSD, or chocolate laced with magic mushrooms, sometimes after work or on weekends. “Every single day felt a little bit more shiny,” he said.

He said he felt encouraged by Tesla’s chief executive, who occasionally makes drug-related jokes on Twitter.

Swanson was put on leave in 2022 and never brought back to work after offering to sell cannabis brownies to an employee who turned out to be a security guard, he said. After unsuccessfully trying to reach his supervisors to appeal, Swanson said, he emailed Musk through a private email available to employees but didn’t hear back.

Representatives for Tesla and Musk didn’t respond to requests for comment on Swanson.

—Emily Glazer and Shalini Ramachandran contributed to this article.


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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
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This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.


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